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  • Writer's pictureJack Vita

How the Tampa Bay Rays built another winner with one of baseball's lowest payrolls

For 20 years, the Oakland Athletics have been the posterchild for the small market baseball club.

The unconventional genius of A’s general manager Billy Beane inspired a best-seller, and later, a critically acclaimed Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt.

Since the turn of the new millennium, the A's have made 11 trips to the postseason, more than any of their American League West counterparts. They've done so with perennially one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. In a sport without a salary cap, large-budget teams hold a clear advantage over their competition, and as a result, smaller-market teams are forced to get creative and oftentimes find new ways to build a winner while lacking the same financial resources.

The A’s built a contender by thinking ahead of the curve, valuing metrics such as On Base Percentage and Slugging Percentage long before anybody else, all the while filling their roster with players undervalued by the open market.

What Beane and the Moneyball A's have accomplished over the years is nothing short of amazing; it deserves attention, recognition and celebration. But through 11 postseason appearances, Beane's club has advanced to just one American League Championship Series, and has yet to win an AL pennant. This isn't an indictment on Beane, Moneyball or the A's. Instead, the A's have shown just how difficult it is for small market teams to win in October. But while one small market club got bounced from the ALDS for the third straight time, another is set to make its second World Series appearance in 13 years.

En route to their first AL pennant since 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays, with baseball's 28th-highest payroll, eliminated the Houston Astros (fourth-highest) and the New York Yankees (first) from contention.

According to the database Spotrac, the Yankees spent $109.4 million in pro-rate salaries on their 2020 ballclub. The Rays' $28.3 million payroll is roughly 25% of the financial burden the Yankees carry. Despite committing $324 million to ace Gerrit Cole and having a payroll four times more expensive than Tampa's, the Yanks won seven fewer regular season games and got bumped from the ALDS by their divisional little brother.

Tampa Bay entered Major League Baseball as an expansion team in 1998. Formerly known as the "Devil Rays", the organization spent a decade lost and wandering the wilderness, perennially finishing in the basement of the American League East. They loaded their roster with ex-stars that couldn't hack it anymore. They didn't win many games, nor draw many fans either, consistently finishing at the bottom of the league in attendance. A new owner and a name change that dropped "devil" from its title would radically change the culture of the organization, and emblematically rescue the ballclub from the fiery pits of baseball hell.

In 2005, new owner Stuart Sternberg ushered in a new front office regime, led by 28 year-old financial analyst and private equity associate Andrew Friedman. Friedman, backed by Matthew Silverman and Erik Neander, would run the Rays like a small business, using a simple stock market strategy as the basic blueprint for their unprecedented success. Detailed in Jonah Keri's 2011 book about the Rays, The Extra 2%, the strategy was pretty straightforward: buy low and sell high.

High-payroll teams often shoot themselves in the foot financially. It's easy to spend money, when you have money to spend. It's common for teams that have money to dole out the big bucks to a former all-star and not get the performance from that player they had hoped for. In these cases, they're typically paying for the services of said player at his most-expensive rate. They're buying high.

With the limited financial resources that the Rays possess, they aren't afforded the option to spend money the way other teams in their division do. Gerrit Cole's 2020 pro-rated $13.3 million salary would have eaten up nearly half of the Rays' payroll.

An even greater struggle lies in that teams such as the Rays and the A's typically aren't able to resign their own star players. Once players like Carl Crawford and Miguel Tejada hit the free agent market, they're as good as gone. That makes competitive windows of opportunity much shorter for these teams. It's essential for them to capitalize when they have the chance. If they can't capitalize on the field, the Rays will surely capitalize on the trade market.

Take for instance Chris Archer. The Rays got the very best out of Archer in his time with Tampa; the righty made two all-star appearances and in 2015, he finished fifth in AL Cy Young voting. When Archer started to show early signs of regression in 2018, the Rays dealt him to Pittsburgh for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and a player to be named later which later turned out to be current MLB Pipeline top 100 prospect Shane Baz. At the time, the once-promising Glasnow was at his absolute lowest value. Through his three seasons with the Pirates, Glasnow logged a 5.79 ERA with a 1.70 WHIP. Two years later, after mastering his early-career control problems and regripping his fastball, Glasnow, 27, will now be the Rays game one starter of the World Series. Meadows received MVP votes last season, and Baz is on track to be a key contributor next season. Through two and a half seasons, Archer has a 4.92 ERA in his time with the Pirates.

The Archer trade isn't an isolated incident. The Rays have built half of their current roster through buying low and selling high. Of the 28 players that made up the Rays' ALCS roster, 14 were ones that the club acquired via trade, including ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena. Only one of those 28 Charlie Morton was acquired as a major league free agent. Over the years the mantra of "buy low, sell high" has been the backbone of the club's rapid ascension to relevancy. It launched the Rays to the 2008 World Series, a 2010 American League East division title, and wild card berths in 2011, 2013 and 2019.

Friedman's analytical mastery eventually would draw the eyes of other organizations, and upon the conclusion of the 2014 season, he left the Rays to take a position as the Dodgers president of baseball operations. But even without Friedman, the show would go on. With Neander now at the helm, the Rays are in the best position to win a World Series they've ever been in.

The modern Rays and manager Kevin Cash have taken advantage of new-age analytics and mastered the art of the defensive shift. They seem to always know where their opponents are going to hit the ball before it happens. They'll occasionally line up four outfielders, and they aren't afraid to shuffle their multi-dimensional, elite athletes around various positions. Tampa placed fifth in defensive runs saved in 2020 for a reason: the Rays are an elite defensive team.

Just two of the team's position players have started every game of the postseason (Arozarena and shortstop Willy Adames). With 14 position players on their roster — seven right-handed, seven left-handed — the Rays play the match-ups better than anybody. They will pinch-hit hitters as early as the third inning if Cash sees a match-up that he likes, and he manage their pitching staff in a similar fashion.

In 2018, the Rays became the first team to start using relief pitchers as "openers", opting for a combination of relievers in place of a traditional starting pitcher. It has since become a league-wide phenomenon, emulated by just about every other big league club, and a fad that doesn't look to be disappearing anytime soon. The trend-setting Rays will deploy their pitchers similarly to how they use their position players. With eight right-handers and six lefties, Cash won't hesitate to pull a starter early if he sees a potential match-up that will benefit his club.

What the Rays have done and continue to do is nothing short of remarkable. Creativity, adaptability and innovation have enabled one of baseball's poorest teams to meet one of baseball's richest teams in the World Series. Sure enough, former executive Andrew Friedman will be there to watch, this time from the other side.

For more entertainment and sports analysis, follow me on Twitter @JackVitaShow, and subscribe to the Jack Vita Show on iTunes or wherever podcasts are found.

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